An Indian Election
After the surprising Australian election, Sunday May 19th was the last phase of polling for the Indian general elections. We now have exit poll results; however, actual votes won’t be counted till 23rd May. Since quite a few mutuals have asked me to do an “explainer” on Indian politics, I am going to do one, trying my best to be objective and correct; let me know if you feel something I say is incorrect/biased/distorted.
First off, lets begin with the basics. Like the US, India is a union of states. However, unlike the US, Indian federalism is relatively weak. State governments have limited areas of jurisdiction and can be overruled by the federal government through various mechanisms. The federal government and the states all follow the Westminster system, with single member first-past-the-post districts. Most state legislatures are unicameral (only 5 out of 29 states have bicameral legislatures), while the federal government is bicameral with a weaker upper house (The Council of States/Rajya Sabha). The Prime Minister is head of government and is elected by members of the Lower House of parliament (The House of people/Lok Sabha). The Upper House doesn’t have the power to stop finance legislation and is mostly relevant to constitutional amendments/social issues legislation. This means the General Election to the Lower House/Lok Sabha (once every 5 years) is the most important election in India.
Moving to describing the political spectrum, India is a multiparty state. However, all parties are not created equal. Today only 2 parties-the BJP (lit. Indian People’s Party) and the INC (Indian National Congress)- are national parties, whereas most other parties are regional or confined to one state. To describe the ideology of these parties, I will piggyback on work by Pradeep K. Chhibber (Polsci, Berkeley) and @rahul_tverma published in their book Ideology & Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India. They essentially argue that the Indian political spectrum is explained by 2 axes of ideology: statism (welfare and regulatory policies) and recognition (what many would call identity politics). This seems to fit quite a few parties of the past and present well, but it doesn’t explain the whole story. Quite a few parties in India are clearly just cults of personality and/or organizing vehicles for castes/religious sects. You can read more about the Chhibber/Verma thesis here:
Now coming back to the point, to understand the current political climate, we need to do a brief round of Independent India’s political history. For convenience, I divide Indian political history into 5 periods:
1947-1965: The Long Nehruvian Era
1966-1975: The Era of Indira Gandhi
1975-1979: The Emergency and the Janta Interregnum
1980-1989: The Gandhi Restoration
1990-Present: Liberalization and Coalitions
I will lay out the basic characteristics and major political divides of each era. During the long Nehruvian era (which includes the short ill-fated premiership of Nehru’s successor Lal Bahadur Shashtri), Indian politics was dominated by the Congress party, which functioned as a big tent party including people who were Fabian Socialists (Nehru), Liberals, Conservatives (Rajendra Prasad, Vallabhbhai Patel, etc) and even Hindu Nationalists (KM Munshi). However, many felt the Nehruvian faction was dominant and the Congress faced serious but not major electoral challenges from Communists (CPI, RSP, Forward Block, etc ), Socialists (Socialist Party, Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party), Conservatives (Swarajya Party) and Hindu Nationalists (Bhartiya Jan Sangh, Ram Rajya Parishad, Hindu Mahasabha). The Congress easily won as much as 75% of seats in parliament, though it never got more than 49% of the popular vote. That said, the crucial thing that made this system work (not very well, but it did work) was the fact the Congress was a well organized machine with representation for people from most parts of India. Major Congress leaders of this period represented Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western India.
The robustness of the system shouldn’t be overstated though; it faced threats such as secessionism in North-East India, violent communist uprisings, alienation of Southern India through language policies, and movements for linguistic states that were resisted by the Center for quite some time, not to mention the Cold War. Under Nehru India professed equidistance and non-alignment between the United States and the USSR, though Nehru allegedly got along well with President Eisenhower (there was even some talk of a Marshall Plan for India, which never had a chance in the American legislative body). During this period, India fought 2 wars with Pakistan: in 1948 and 1965. During the 1948 war Pakistani irregulars occupied a big chunk of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. At the time Nehru appealed to the UN and declared a ceasefire, and Pakistan occupies that territory into the present. The 1965 war was won by India; however there was a significant cost in terms of deterioration in India-US relations and food shortages. In 1962, India faced Chinese aggression across the border and was humiliated. During this period one of the most shameful periods of Indian history happened, when Indian sent ethnically Chinese Indian citizens to internment camps. One of survivors of these camps has memorialized their story in the book Doing time with Nehru: https://www.amazon.com/Doing-Time-Nehru-India-China-internment/dp/1480113794
The domestic politics of foreign policy were not all that complicated. Contemporary Congress governments usually got support for their Pakistan policy from Hindu Nationalists (ironic, I know), with Conservatives from the Swarajya party being the main dissidents, advocating for closer relations with the US and US allies like Pakistan. However, Nehru and the Congress was regarded as too soft on Communist China by the Right and Socialists.
Anyway, as all this was happening, anti-Congress parties, while unable to counter Congress hegemony nationally, won power in pockets of the country in state governments. The world’s first democratically elected Communist government took power in Kerala. Conservative and Trans-Partisan coalitions united by opposition to the Congress party took power in many states. They were helped by the fact that the dirigiste socialist nature of Indian govt bred corruption and resentment against the Congress.
Why is all this history important? Well, this explains one axis of the modern political spectrum: ideology. The Indian Right and other forms of opposition to the Congress were born of resentment against bureaucratic overburden and corruption and overreach by the Congress. There are direct lineages from the politics of this period to the present.
The Indira era which began in 1966 heightened some of the contradictions and stresses of the Nehruvian era. Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Nehru and came to power as a result of machinations of the Congress “syndicate”. The Syndicate was a group of veteran regional leaders of Congress who found themselves having to choose a new leader after the deaths in quick sucession of Nehru and Shastri. They couldn’t decide whom to elevate among their ranks, hence picked Gandhi, who they thought could be easily controlled by the Syndicate. Morarji Desai, the most senior syndicate leader even described her as a “dumb doll”. For the first couple of years, Gandhi ruled as a moderate, adopting economic policy recommended by international institutions. However, by the end of the 60s, Gandhi saw the rising tide of the New Left in the 60s as an opportunity to consolidate power. She tacked hard to the left, and attacked the Syndicate. The Syndicate expelled her from the Congress party, and in response she formed her own Congress(R) party. The Syndicate Congress became known as Congress(O) (O = organization, but people called it the Old Congress). While this was happening, a coalition of Conservatives, Hindu Nationalists and Socialists won power in a number of states (they allowed anyone except communists to join).
In the 1967 general election, Congress slumped to a small majority as opposition parties made gains. Indira Gandhi emerged victorious in her fight with the Syndicate, which joined the opposition. In order to bolster her popularity Gandhi carried out a number of populist measures such as nationalizing banks and ending the privy purses of Maharajahs. War with Pakistan over Bangladesh in 1971 also strengthened her popularity and left the more conservative opposition weak. Gandhi essentially became an elected and popular dictator with no curbs on her power … except the courts. After a court convicted her of misusing government resources during elections, Gandhi decided to declare emergency in 1975, suspending human rights and arresting major opposition leaders. Only the Moscow aligned Communist Party of India supported Gandhi, and all other political parties and student activists joined the opposition against her dictatorship, which no longer had the fig leaf of democracy; most of them were arrested. Anyhow, bowing to internal and external pressure, Gandhi called off the emergency 2 years later. The opposition (Socialists, Conservatives and Hindu Nationalists) had gotten rather chummy in jail and decided to form a united front against Gandhi, and this was called the Janta Party (lit. People’s Party). The 1977 election saw the first non-Congress govt elected and Morarji Desai, the old head of the Syndicate, became Prime Minister.
The Janata years were marred by infighting between ideologically disparate politicians. However the short lived government managed to undo the damage Gandhi had done to the Indian Constitution. Indira Gandhi managed to bring down the Janata Government by convincing the ambitious politician Charan Singh to defect and promising him her support to become Prime Minister. However, after Charan Singh defected, Gandhi spurned him and he left office never having faced parliament. In fresh elections in 1979, Gandhi made a comeback, portraying herself a victim of the Janata Party. Back in office, she adopted a much more centrist line economically, adopting some liberal reforms to India’s suffocating bureaucratic state. However, she mishandled an insurgent movement among Sikhs in Punjab and ended up being assassinated by her (Sikh) bodyguards.
After her death, India saw pogroms against Sikh men, especially in Delhi, allegedly directed by Congress leaders. After her death, her son Rajiv Gandhi became PM. Rajiv Gandhi is widely regarded as India’s worst Prime Minister (I suppose not everyone agrees). He began his term by dismissing the deaths of 3,000 Sikhs in the pogroms as a minor reaction to the death of a giant (his mother). He won the 1984 election in an insanely huge landslide due to the sympathy vote. Later in his term, he also dragged India into the Sri Lankan Civil War most unwisely. In addition to that he set back Muslim women’s rights by reversing a Supreme Court decision that guaranteed them alimony. He also ignited a controversy over a Mosque in Ayodhya allegedly build by the Mughal Emperor Babur by demolishing an existing temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu God Ram by throwing open the locks to this Mosque, which had been locked for decades.
If this was not enough, he was also implicated in an international corruption scandal, where it was alleged that he took kickbacks from Swedish defense contractor Bofors. As a result of all these controversies, Rajiv Gandhi lost the 1989 election. Rajiv Gandhi’s shenanigans with the Mosque at Ayodhya emboldened Hindu Nationalists, and in 1992, a mob of Hindu Nationalists destroyed the Babri Mosque, and this became a symbol of Hindu Nationalist political resurgence. Both sides of the Babri Mosque dispute cite historical/archaeological evidence, but its beyond the scope of this article to dig into this contentious history.
While Indira Gandhi 2.0 and Rajiv Gandhi were engaging in the messes in the Punjab and Sri Lanka, the opposition Janata Party had been adrift and out of power. Lacking ideological coherence, the party began to split. The Hindu Nationalists left to start the modern day BJP in 1980. Other regional groups formed based around certain popular leaders and/or voters of certain castes (these were usually “middle” castes). This is where part of the second axis of Indian politics comes from: identity. While this explains some of the identity axis, it doesn’t explain all of it. What about the Dalits, the untouchables, the outcastes, voters who are at the very bottom of the caste hierarchy, you ask ? Well, Dalit politics actually predates Indian Independence, with leaders like BR Ambedkar representing Dalits in the freedom movement. Dr Ambedkar and other argued that the Congress failed to represent Dalits, and he started his own political party called the Scheduled Caste Federation and later the Republican Party of India (Dr Ambedkar was educated in the US, so the name is a deliberate reference to the abolitionist party of Lincoln). However, these parties did not see much electoral success, and most Dalit voters continued to vote for the Congress. However, in the 80s, arose another Dalit political movement, led by Kanshi Ram that built the modern day Bahujan Samaj Party (lit. Majority Society Party).
There’s a third source of political beliefs on the identity axis as well; this is language. During the early years of the Republic, the government believed that a single national language universally used would be essential. In addition, the government favored continuing with British era provincial boundaries. Both of these measures were very unpopular in some states, where people wanted a single linguistic state. This resulted in a huge reduction of Congress popularity in South India and the rise of parties like the DMK in Tamil Nadu. Other regionalist parties also exist based around single popular leaders, like the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the BJD in Odisha, etc. Some regional pride parties like Shiv Sena (SHS) in Maharashtra grew up after linguistic states were created.
So, the tl;dr version of this post is that there are 2 axes to Indian politics: statism and identity. Beliefs on statism are primarily influenced by opinions on corruption of the Indira Gandhian/Nehruvian License-Quota-Permit Raj and beliefs on identity are influenced by the Caste system, with various numerically dominant middle castes voting for Janta Party splinter groups (RJD (in Bihar), SP(in UP), JD-U (in Bihar), JD-S (in Karanataka)) and Dalits voting for the Bahujan Samaj Party. There are also other sources of identity, like Hindu Nationalism, language and allegiance to popular leaders. By necessity, I have left out many minor political trends/parties.
The combined result of all these political forces has been that no party has been as dominant as the Nehru-Indira-Rajiv Congress, with coalition governments ruling the country since 1989. However, with the rise of Modi, the BJP won the first single party majority government in 2014. Exit polls released today suggest that the Modi govt is likely to continue, but might lose enough seats to no longer be a single party majority government. Perhaps, the “End of the coalition era” takes in 2014 were a bit premature.